Snowbirds from Canada ready for Florida return

Louise Hodgins, left, of the Village of Gilchrist and a Canadian snowbird, speaks with her friend, Linda Holland, right, of the Village of Fernandina, while exercising in the Bradenton Recreation Center pool. Canadian snowbirds are a big part of Florida's economy, spending $3.2 billion on existing Florida homes between August 2019 and July 2020.

Soon, fully-vaccinated Canadian snowbirds can drive across the border and all the way to Florida.

And that's good news, very good news, for the Sunshine State's economy.

Starting Nov. 8, fully-vaccinated, non-essential travelers from Mexico and Canada can enter the United States through land and ferry ports of entry. While it's not pre-pandemic conditions, it's welcome news to Canadian snowbirds.

"From an organizational standpoint, obviously we were elated," said Evan Rachkovsky, director of research and communications at the Canadian Snowbird Association. "This was something our membership had been waiting to hear since the border was closed in March of 2020."

Snowbirds, and Canadian snowbirds in particular, are a big part of Florida's economy. While it can be hard to pin down exact numbers, there's indications they're high.

Rachkovsky estimates more than 600,000 Canadians usually visit for one to six months, while, in 2019, Visit Florida logged about 3.62 Canadian million visitors in general. About 1.5 million of those visits occurred in January, February and March, according to Visit Florida.

And Canadians are big spenders when it comes to real estate. From August 2019–July 2020 Canadians spent $3.2 billion on existing Florida homes, according to a survey released in 2020 by the National Association of Realtors in collaboration with Florida Realtors. That made Canadians the No. 1 foreign buyers of Floridian property, according to the survey, a position they're familiar with.

The Villages is no exception to the migration. Again, drilling down to the exact number is tricky, although there are estimates for snowbirds in general.

Roughly 12% of The Villages in Sumter County is occupied by seasonal residents, said Rich Doty, GIS coordinator and research demographer at the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. The number is based on Villages Water Utility Services boundary information from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

In Marion County, about 15% of Villages residents are seasonal, although there is no available Lake County data.

Terry and Louise Hodgins, of the Village of Gilchrist, have been going across the border for more than 10 years.

They were attracted to Florida because of the friendly people and the weather.

"What else can I say?" Terry Hodgins said. "It's not snowing."

The Hodgins are former members of the Canadian Loonies and Toonies club, which is geared toward Canadian snowbirds. Dave Horsman, of the Village of Palo Alto, is the club's president.

He bought his home in The Villages back in 2008.

"My feeling is I've got the best of both worlds," he said. "I get to spend six months in probably the most awesome place on Earth as far as I'm concerned, The Villages, and then I get to spend six months in a fabulous country, a country I love a lot, Canada."

While in Florida, both families estimate they spend more than $1,000 a month on food and activities.

However, when the pandemic struck both returned to Canada, at least for a time. The Loonies and Toonies stopped club operations and, in 2020, Florida only welcomed 1.29 million Canadians.

Rachcovsky estimates about 30% of the not-for-profit advocacy group's 100,000 membership came to Florida last year. That's down from 60%-70%.

One reason, he said, was that members were hesitant to travel in a pandemic without an effective vaccine.

The other was the border restrictions.

Because of COVID-19, Horsman decided not to return to The Villages.

"For many of us we got to experience winter for the first time in a few years, and we made the best of it, but by far we did not enjoy it," Horsman said. "You get real spoiled coming down here, enjoying the warm weather and being able to enjoy your normal activities like golf."

Driving to Florida is a popular method of travel and, while Canadians could fly, that would leave them without cars. Some snowbirds made alternative arrangements, shipping their cars and then flying to Florida. Horsman, for example, used that method this year.

The Hodgins took a different route. Instead, they flew to Florida in December 2020, and bought a used car. When they returned to Canada, they drove, a move made possible because of their Canadian citizenship.

Driving to Canada meant they only had to quarantine at home, but they did have to leave the car there when they returned to Florida.

"We don't want to stay there when it's snowing," Hodgins said. "My wife loves it here. Who knows what's going to happen next year?"

Now that the new restrictions are lifting, Hodgins plans to return in mid-November to retrieve the car.

And that's not the only thing coming back.

"The fact that the land border is going to be opening up Nov. 8, I think we're going to be pretty close to pre-pandemic levels of snowbird traveling this season," Rachkovsky said.

The Loonies and Toonies are also restarting club meetings, with the first scheduled in December.

For the first time, Horsman sent out a member survey to 800 email addresses, asking, among other things, if they were coming back.

Horsman received more than 300 responses. Of those, 208 email addresses responded with a "yes."

Sixty-two responded "yes," if the border opened.

Specialty Editor Leah Schwarting can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5375, or leah.schwarting@thevillagesmedia.com.